The Blue Angel Lounge – Interview
Chloe Mayne speaks to The Blue Angel Lounge keyboardist Theo Berwe about the creation of the new record, calamitous live shows and the growing redundancy of psychedelia:
Said in no light terms, The Blue Angel Lounge are one of the most exciting and enigmatic bands to have emerged from Germany in recent years. With third LP, A Sea of Trees, the group shifts to a darker and more crystallised sound, polishing their previous rolling rawness with the clarity of dense forests, evening frosts and humming city streets watched from above.
“The band was founded by Nils and Mel in 2006,” explains Theo. “It was mostly about songwriting and recording back then, and the band only played a couple of shows during the first years. We have had a constant live line up since late 2009 (although there have been changes on several positions), which was exactly the time that the Berlin-based label 8mm Musik took notice of us. Since then, things have been a lot more intense. 8mm definitely helped us to push things to the next level.”
From the outset, A Sea of Trees is a different beast to its younger siblings. It’s dark and dripping, the feeling of heavy feet moving across stone floors; but it’s also delicate and refined, cut more carefully and intricately than the previous records. There’s a vulnerability in the vocals (of Nils Ottensmeyer), to which comparisons have in the past been drawn to a male Nico – and not unreasonably so (this might be a poignant time to note that the band’s name finds its origins in the New York City club where Nico’s first American performances took place).
“Usually someone starts with a basic idea; a chord progression, a bass line or anything else,” says Theo of the group’s creative process. “Nils creates a song structure and comes up with a vocal melody. After that, we usually spend a lot of time on tiny details and arrangements. But the base frame of a song appears out of thin air in most cases.”
A few of the songs on A Sea of Trees (album artwork pictured, left)will already be known to fans of the band, having been released as singles. They are all standouts: the brooding, midnight train-ride, passing-lights sigh of ‘Walls’ is a great example of the group’s ability to simultaneously craft simplicity and fragility – craft being the essential term here, for The Blue Angel Lounge have proven themselves adept at whittling away songs like tiny, hand-carved sculptures. The heavy breathing, tenor swoon of ‘In Distance’ and the off-kilter ‘Melloch Halb & Halb’ are also powerful tracks, pushing into a sound that is undeniably distinctive. The record really turns its face to the light with the most recent of the single releases, ‘Desolate Sands’. It sits at the mouth of a chimerical musical cavern, small lakes of phosphorescence twinkling, glow-worms writhing on damp and glistening stone surfaces. Overall, the attention to detail throughout this album is stunning. The just-roughened edges of self-titled debut The Blue Angel Lounge have been filed away, the lens tightened to crystal focus.
Theo agrees with the ways in which A Sea of Trees diverges from its predecessors.
“We are much more in control of our sound nowadays,” he explains. “Our debut record had a rather lofi sound, partly because it indeed was a bedroom recording. To a certain degree this was on purpose, of course. We still use a lot of reverb on vocals (and everywhere else), but on the other hand, the confidence in our own songwriting has grown since then and we don’t feel like we have to ‘hide’ beneath a lofi sound.
All in all, we’re really happy with the sound of the new record. We recorded a large number of the tracks on our own in our rehearsal space. All of the drums and most of the electric guitars were done in a studio though, as well as all of the mixing. This combination works great for us. It gives us enough control over the recording process to feel comfortable but also enables us to reach for a studio sound.”
The band are emerging from their dense time in the studio to begin touring, including a headline spot at the inaugural Paris International Festival of Psychedelia in June.
“The people behind the festival organised a show in Berlin’s famous Berghain club for us last summer. That’s how we got in touch initially. They must have enjoyed our show somehow, because they wanted to book us again for Paris Psych Fest.
To be honest, we are not too keen about this whole “psych” hype with psych fests springing up like mushrooms all around the globe. Psychedelic as a music genre seems to be quite redundant and conservative at the moment, which is weird considering its origins. But well, complaining about the psych scene in every interview we do is not less redundant. When our manager asked us if we want to play the festival, he didn’t mention it was a psych fest. A festival in Paris? Soft Moon are headlining? Sure!
But no, seriously. Paris Psych Fest has a really well-chosen line up and we have the impression these guys are doing an excellent job with organisation and promotion so far (especially in comparison to other Psych Fests). Maybe they will do us the favor and just change the name for next year’s edition.”
In the past, The Blue Angel Lounge have been fortunate enough to take their music worldwide. “I had to look it up,” admits Theo when I ask about the furthest the group have travelled to play a show. “Apparently it’s Los Angeles: over 9000km away from home. We played there during our support tour for The Brian Jonestown Massacre two years ago.”
I ask Theo to tell me about one of the band’s most memorable shows. “What a coincidence!”, he says. “The LA show was one of the most remarkable shows we’ve had so far. We were playing at the Wiltern, which is 2000+ people venue. It was a fantastic show, actually the last show of a fantastic and insane US tour with the BJM and we had an incredible after show party at a former nudist ranch somewhere in the hills.
But apart from that… recently, we talked about our worst shows and tried to come up with a ranking. The undoubted winner was a show we played in Hannover (Germany) a couple of years ago. The show was badly paid but very well attended, because it was some kind of weekly club night with live music. So the idea was to sell some merchandise to at least cover our expenses and have some good promotion.
On the morning of the gig our drummer called and said that he couldn’t make it. We decided that our former percussion player, who had never played drums before, could easily jump in and do the job. So two of us got into one car with all of our backline and the rest got into a second car. Just after we arrived at the venue, we got a phone call to say that the rest of the band had had a car crash on the autobahn. Luckily, nobody was hurt and somehow they made it to the show. In the end, we played a thirty minute show with a drummer that wasn’t actually a drummer, without a soundcheck, and totally shocked because of the accident and the crashed car. Of course, we didn’t sell any merch and the crowd was mad because our set was so short. Sounds pretty memorable, right?”
A Sea of Trees is being released by A Recordings, the fledgling label of musical mastermind and Brian Jonestown Massacre ringleader Anton Newcombe. Anton has notably supported The Blue Angel Lounge for a number of years now, however the band are enjoying the shift into a footing of their own.
“When we first met Anton and he joined us in the studio, we were pretty excited,” says Theo of the creative relationship. “But he’s become a friend over the years. Of course he is still supporting us a lot, helping us to promote our new record and, first and foremost, releasing it on his label. But I think we emancipated ourselves somehow. When we met Anton for a photo shoot a couple of weeks ago in Berlin we asked him if he liked our new record and he replied something like: “Yes, I like it, but I don’t have to love every single song on it. I understand your songwriting though, and I’m happy that you guys are doing your thing”.
This was a bigger compliment to us than any enthusiastic praise could have possibly been, because it means that he respects us as musicians. He probably still thinks we’re stupid brats with bad English skills, but you get the point.”
The remainder of the year looks to be both ambitious and fruitful for The Blue Angel Lounge.
“We’re working on another big European tour in autumn. It would also be great to get back to the US later this year or in the beginning of 2015, but this heavily depends on how our new record is received,” says Theo. “Apart from that, we want to start writing new songs as soon as possible. We totally forgot how it feels to write songs without thinking about release deadlines.”
If you’re in Europe, you can catch them at the following dates:
05.07.2014 Paris – Psych Fest, FR
11.10.2014 Chemnitz – Weltecho, DE
12.10.2014 Berlin – Comet Club, DE
15.10.2014 Wiesbaden – Schlachthof, DE
17.10.2014 Hannover – Café Glocksee, DE
18.10.2014 Hamburg – Kleiner Donner, DE
Interview by Chloe Mayne